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When Randy Weems retired at the age of 65, he decided to make improving his health a priority.

By Amanda Thomas

For most, the appeal of retirement is the promise that there will be time to take it easy; to sit around the house. Maybe get really into “The Price is Right.”

But for Randy Weems, retirement was a chance to take the effort he had long applied to his service to the community and refocus on himself.

“Because of my work, I didn’t want to take the time to cook and I didn’t exercise,” said Weems. “Fast food was how I ate. I was 65 and weighed about 270 pounds, and I felt slow — sluggish. With retirement, I had a chance to dedicate some time to my health and do some of the things I wanted to do.”

As director of the Carrollton-based nonprofit Alice’s House, Weems worked to provide a sanctuary for children who had been displaced by abuse, neglect and other family situations. The work was demanding, both physically and emotionally, but Weems’ passion was ensuring that children in the program had the resources they needed.

Then, one Sunday morning at church, Weems was introduced to a free local program that sounded tailor-made for what he hoped to accomplish for himself — losing weight, improving his diet, beginning to exercise and reducing his risk for health problems in years to come. The program was offered by another organization that, not unlike Alice’s House, was working to make the region a better place to live.

“It was in the right place at the right time,” said Weems. “It sounded convenient, and I knew I had the time to do it, so I signed up.”

The Diabetes Prevention Program is a series of free classes that help participants make lasting changes to fight key risk factors for diabetes. Developed by Stanford University in California, it combines coaching from a certified lifestyle educator, proven learning materials and small-group support to set participants on the path to better health.

It’s one of several clinically-based programs offered by Tanner Health System’s Get Healthy, Live Well, a unique, multi-sector community coalition working to eliminate tobacco use, expand access to healthy food, increase physical activity and reduce chronic disease risks in Carroll, Haralson and Heard counties. The coalition consists of businesses, educational institutions, community groups and faith-based organizations.

And it’s getting results.

Since 2011, when Tanner conducted its first Community Health Needs Assessment (CHNA) — an in-depth survey of the region’s health needs — the health system has been working to build a “culture of health,” cultivating a community where good health flourishes across demographic, geographic and social sectors.

The following year, Tanner received initial funding from the Community Foundation of West Georgia to support Get Healthy, Live Well. In April 2012, the Get Healthy, Live Well Coalition was born, and the community’s health goals were established later that year.

With the help of two grants from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the program has continued its work to transform west Georgia into a healthier community. Over the years, the coalition has worked to address tobacco-free living; healthy food access; physical activity; and community prevention, wellness and health education.

So far, the coalition has provided Freshstart tobacco cessation programs to 700 individuals. It has also established a local chapter for Safe Routes to School in Carrollton, leading to a 700 percent increase in walkers and cyclists.

Other major accomplishments include establishing an inpatient Diabetes Health Education Program to help hospital patients learn to control diabetes after they’re discharged, reducing the risk for rehospitalization, and introducing chronic disease self-management programs like Living Well With Diabetes.

“Eating healthy and exercise can have a huge impact on combating disease,” said Denise Taylor, senior vice president and chief community health and brand officer for Tanner Health System. “We’re really trying to help people prevent disease. But we also want to help people who have a lifelong condition learn how to manage that disease as well, which can have a meaningful and lasting impact in their quality of life.”

According to the annual County Health Rankings report issued by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, residents in Carroll, Haralson and Heard counties are becoming healthier.

The report considers more than 30 factors that affect health across every county in all 50 states. Those include high school graduation rates, obesity, and smoking; the number of people without health insurance, teen births, quality of local air and water, and other metrics shown to impact a community’s overall health.

Each county is ranked on two overall measures — health outcomes and health factors. The health outcomes metric includes rates of premature death and how people reported their overall health in surveys. For health factors, the report details behaviors such as adult tobacco use, physical inactivity and teen births, as well as clinical care issues, socioeconomic factors and the physical environment.

The 2017 health rankings showed that Carroll, Haralson and Douglas counties all improved in their residents’ health outcomes from the year prior.

Douglas County improved its score by four points between 2016 and 2017, moving to 31 among the state’s 159 counties from a 2016 ranking of 36. And its “quality of life” moved up 18 points, to 40 from 58.

Carroll County improved its health outcomes rank almost 10 places, from 58th in 2016 to 49th in 2017. While the county’s health factors’ rank decreased slightly, from 60th in 2016 to 68th in 2017, there were improvements in the areas of physical inactivity. In 2017, 28 percent of adults age 20 and over reported no leisure-time physical activity, compared to 29 percent in 2016.

Haralson County improved from 95th to 81st in health outcomes and improved from 55th to 47th for health factors. The county also lost some significant weight, showing a significant improvement in the percentage of adults who report a BMI of 30 or more. That percentage went from 29 percent to 27 percent.

There’s still work to be done, however. The coalition is working toward new goals based on the key issues identified in the 2016 CHNA. Those issues include access to care; behavioral health (especially substance abuse treatment); health education and literacy; and chronic disease prevention and management. The chronic conditions targeted will be cancer, diabetes, heart disease and obesity.

To address these issues, the coalition is comprised of several targeted committees: School Wellness Committee; Healthy, Safe and Active Communities; Faith-Based; Nutrition/Healthy Food Access; Access to Care; Behavioral Health; Health Education/Literacy, Chronic Disease Prevention and Management; and Social Determinants of Health.

“We knew early on that the only way to make a real impact on health was to bring local community leaders and volunteers to the table,” said Taylor. “Partnership and volunteer engagement has been the most important thing that we’ve been able to accomplish. Making a community-wide change requires community involvement.”

For Weems, the Diabetes Prevention Program was key to helping him turn his health around.

“I’ve lost about 50 pounds,” said Weems. “I do more of my own cooking now, walk four or five miles several times a week on the Carrollton GreenBelt with my wife and enjoy being active and outdoors more. I feel better, I enjoy life more, I smile more and I feel great.”

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